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Celebrating 50 Years

As our firm celebrates its 50th anniversary year, we thank our clients for the trust they have placed in us, and for allowing PondelWilkinson to help enhance value, build businesses and protect reputations.

It has been our privilege to work side-by-side with stellar management teams and boards of directors of companies big and small, established and emerging, global and regional.

When our firm was founded in 1968, it was done with a business philosophy based on four simple tenets: apply sound thinking to meet unique client challenges; attract the best talent, regardless of position; deliver quality, responsive service; and always operate in a respectful and ethical manner. That philosophy has endured.

Today, we pride ourselves on long client and staff tenure, with a collaborative, professional team that is the best in our business.  We are grateful to our referral sources for their confidence in recommending us.  And we extend deep gratitude to a vast network of wonderful people with whom we work every day on behalf of our clients, from investors and analysts, to editors and reporters, lawyers, accountants, and so many others.

Technology has transformed much of what we do, but our core competencies and the scope of our services remain highly focused, grounded in relevant experience: investor relations; strategic public relations; and crisis communications.

Aside from our day-to-day client work, in 2018 alone, we have been privileged to arrange highly successful investor days; stage business/financial media events and NDRs; develop communications for several mergers and acquisitions; and craft delicate, reputation-defining messages regarding a number of highly sensitive matters.

Tooting our own horn is not generally our style. We fully believe it is our role to be the rock, the secret sauce, the foundation behind the scenes, and have our clients shine brightly, center stage. But hitting 50 is a pretty big deal, and we know you will understand and share our exuberance.

So, to everyone we know, thanks for being there for us. We look forward to being there for you for decades to come.

Making the Grade for a Reg A+ Offering

Evan Pondel wrote a story in the May/June 2018 issue of IR Update on Regulation A+ offerings and what they mean for investor relations professionals. You can download a PDF of the story here.  Following are some IR tips for companies pursuing a Reg A+ offering:

  • Ensure that you are telling a story that individual investors will understand
  • Align with experts in public relations and digital marketing
  • Millennial themes tend to generate the most interest with respect to Reg A+ offerings
  • Answer investor questions via live phone conversations, email and FAQs
  • Exercise patience when speaking with individual investors
  • Apply Reg FD and consistent communication whenever telling the story
  • Under promise and over deliver

Lying to the Media is Never OK, Never Was, Never Will Be

A recent op-ed in the Los Angeles Times, “Who is Hope Hicks, and What’d she do?” by Virginia Heffernan has struck a chord among PR pros.

Newly appointed Hicks, 29, is the third director of communications for the current White House, and the youngest in history to hold that position.

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Hope Hicks followed by White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders. Photo credit: Doug Mills/The New York Times

While news of her relationship with former Trump Staff Secretary Rob Porter was not the subject of Heffernan’s editorial, the author’s portal of Hick’s job as a “flack” is what’s sending shockwaves throughout the public relations industry.

For those unaware, a flack is a pejorative term sometimes used by journalists to label less-than-scrupulous public relations people, not to be confused with a “hack,” which connotes a security breach or taxi driver, and is a term occasionally used to label a “sloppy” journalist. Both have negative connotations.

According to Heffernan, Hicks was born into a “family of high-level flacks, whitewashing the unsavory practices or grave misdeeds of Texaco, the NFL, Harvey Weinstein and Donald Trump,” a reference to her family’s work as crisis communications counselors, and now as the White House communications chief, potentially deceiving the public regarding an obstruction of justice charge.

Right, wrong or indifferent, op-eds are opinion pieces. And the author of this one certainly got it wrong when she wrote, “lying to the media is traditionally called PR.”

No, it’s not. It never was and never will be.

Ironically, the PR industry at times may grapple with its own image problem. However, references to spin doctors and flacks only perpetuate a stereotype.

PR pros are essentially spokespeople, not always necessarily quoted in stories, working in the background, assisting reporters to help them do their jobs. Whether representing a brand, association or publicly traded company, PR practitioners are usually the first point of contact between reporters and clients. Building meaningful relationships with journalists based on trust is paramount to effective media relations, and to the livelihoods and careers of many public relations executives.

Although the percentage has slipped from 2016 to 2017, PR practitioners are still the third most important sources of information for journalists, behind subject experts and industry professionals, according to the 2017 Global Social Journalism Study.

One can agree that it takes a certain skill to effectively navigate any crisis communications situation, especially in a hostile media environment. Reporter deadlines coupled with mounting pressure only adds to the stress of providing timely, accurate, and credible information. But that is what makes the PR industry so specialized.

Every profession can have bad actors, or those on occasion that make mistakes, but the PR industry abides by a code of ethics, values vital to the integrity of the profession as a whole. It’s not fair, nor appropriate, to single out one instance to characterize an entire industry.

Lying to media only gets PR practitioners shunned as ineffective communicators, which often leads to loss of clients, loss of jobs, and the end to careers.

— George Medici, gmedici@pondel.com

 

Building Better Media Relationships

Media relations are an integral component to what we do at PondelWilkinson, whether a public relations or investor relations engagement.

Crises aside, generating media awareness of corporate entities, their brands, products and services, among readers, listeners and viewers is critical to the success of any communications program.

Shrinking news departments, fewer beat reporters, and an increasingly tighter news hole, however, are making it harder to get reporters’ attention.

Another caveat to these challenges is that only 36 percent of journalists prefer to get their information from PR/IR sources, press releases, and newswires, compared with 42 percent last year, according to the 2017 Global Social Journalism Studycision-global-social-journalism-study

The good news is that experts and industry contacts remain key sources of stories for U.S. journalists. For example, while a reporter may not write about a new app or the latest software version, he or she may be more inclined to interview an executive about key technology trends, such as artificial intelligence or cybersecurity.

Media relations 101, right? Maybe not. According to the same study, only 19 percent of reporters say PR professionals provide high quality content, and just 37 percent are reliable.

Learning what’s important to reporters is vital to establishing long-lasting media relationships, essentially, helping them make their jobs easier.

Follow these simple rules for building successful media contacts:

  • Do your research, learn about the reporter and his or her area of coverage.
  • Customize your pitch, conveying why it’s important to the outlet’s audience.
  • Do not blast pitches.  Just don’t do it.
  • Provide value, such as proprietary content or a unique perspective or point of view.
  • Call first, if possible, especially since reporters are constantly inundated with e-mails.
  • Be transparent to foster credibility.

There’s no easy way to building better media relationships. It takes time, effort and a good sense of news, coupled with knowing what reporters want and need.

— George Medici, gmedici@pondel.com

Read This Before Posting

I was listening to Marc Maron’s WTF podcast the other day when he equated the word “content” to corporate detritus that clogs up the Internet and bombards people with useless information. I don’t think you can make a blanket statement and say that anything deemed “content” is rubbish, but I do agree that there is a glut of content on the Internet that lacks substance.  It is also becoming increasingly difficult to distinguish “sponsored content” from content that is published without strings attached.

For example, a story that runs on WSJ.com about the virtues of an organic diet could be defined as content, although a journalist most likely synthesized the information to present an objective sequence of thoughts about this particular subject. Juxtapose a WSJ.com story with a sponsored blog post on the Huffington Post about the merits of an organic diet, and the word “content” takes on new meaning.

But is there truly a difference between paid content and content that isn’t sponsored?

The unsponsored content found in mainstream media and trade publications has often been influenced by the very advertisers (or sponsors) and subscribers that pay for the content to be produced in the first place.  And yet, I have to agree with Maron that the word “content” is beginning to smack of something manufactured, manipulated, and ultimately, unworthy of a read.

At PondelWilkinson, we are often in a position to create content, whether it is writing a press release, posting an image on a blog, or publishing a tweet. We strive to ensure that the content we create is substantive; to do that, we think obsessively about every single detail, including word choice, the audience, and the best way to deliver the content.

To help encourage the publishing of quality content, following is a list of items to consider before hitting “post.”

  • Know your audience. The best way to ensure your content is connecting with its intended audience is to know who you are targeting.
  • Write with intention. Writing a blog post with a goal in mind, a thesis to prove, a point of view to express will help ensure the content resonates with readers.
  • Pay attention to detail. Word choice, grammar and focus matter when asking someone to read something, even if it is 140 characters or less.
  • Provoke interest. Let’s face it, anyone can write or publish something on the web. Ask yourself if what you are writing is provocative or original.
  • Review analytics. Almost anything published online leaves a footprint. Understanding what analytics matter and whether you are hitting the right target audience will help you know if your content is worthwhile.

— Evan Pondel, epondel@pondel.com

The Public Relations of Lobbying

Influence is the common denominator between public relations and lobbying. One influences opinion, and the other, government.

While these disciplines sometimes work in tandem, they are separate and distinct. In New York, however, that may not be the case. The New York State Joint Commission on Public Ethics (JCOPE) earlier this year issued an advisory opinion that expands the definition of lobbying to include aspects of public relations.

The lobby of the House of Commons. Painting 1886 by Liborio Prosperi.

The lobby of the House of Commons. Painting 1886 by Liborio Prosperi.

Whoa nelly, says the Public Relations Society of America (PRSA), the nation’s largest and foremost membership organization for public relations and communication professionals, which blasted JCOPE in a statement, saying the opinion “will lead to more confusion as to what lobbying is, circumvention based on the ambiguous standards articulated, and less trust in government.”

While the current advisory opinion is being challenged in court, JCOPE’s new interpretation of the New York State Lobbying Act, ambiguous as it may be, says consultants engaged in “direct” or “grass roots” lobbying on behalf of a client must comply. Believe it or not, this includes traditional PR tactics, such as message development, drafting press releases and contacting media.

The definition of a lobbyist usually revolves around compensation. According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, there are more than 50 versions of lobbying laws in states and territories,  ranging from definitions of lobbyists to payment thresholds for compensation or reimbursements.  New York’s current threshold is $5K annually.

Excluding media was probably a good “PR play” by JCOPE, no pun intended. Just think of how top-tier outlets like the New York Times and Wall Street Journal and hundreds of others would react if they had to register as “lobbyists?” It also would be interesting to learn how a reporter would feel if he or she was included in a PR firm’s “disclosure” for its “lobbying” activities.

The reality is media outlets frequently meet with public officials. But should a person who simply set up a meeting between a client and an editorial board qualify as a lobbyist? Common sense says no. The difference is that editorial boards have their own guidelines and choose what they cover or report on. Lobbyists, on the other hand, go directly to the source to sway opinion.

PR practitioners basically are connecting the dots, middlemen so to speak. Aside from helping point stakeholders to pertinent information, or connecting people with similar or disparate points of view, we help clients define messages and better articulate their narratives. But it’s always the client’s message, never that of a PR firm.

— George Medici, gmedici@pondel.com

Walk Down the Hall before Sending that Email

It’s no secret that the ability to write well, which typically equates to the ability to think well, is a fundamental skillset that goes a long way in many businesses and professions, certainly ours, whether the public relations or investor relations side of our practice.

The University of Chicago, however, revealed in a recent study, that no matter how well and in which medium writing is deployed—via email or text message, in a legal brief, or in our world, a press release—verbal communication is a far more powerful tool than the proverbial pen.

The study conducted by UCHI Professors Nicholas Epley and Juliana Schroeder concluded that the same information that could be conveyed verbally comes off sounding less intelligent and convincing in writing, and that picking up the phone or walking down the hall to a colleague’s office, rather than sending an email, virtually always will be more effective.

The study, “The Sound of Intellect,” revealed that voice inflection and other vocal cues show that humans are “alive inside, thoughtful, active and (written) text strips that out.”

Even if precisely the same words that can be delivered verbally—in person, in a voice message or by video—are put into written form, the study showed that the verbal medium won hands down.

None of this means emailing and text messaging are going away. And as far as skillsets are concerned, solid writing still equates to sound thinking and still reigns supreme at firms such as ours. But the study does confirm that humanity is the real winner, and if there is a choice, perhaps think twice before pressing the send button.

-Roger Pondel, rpondel@pondel.com

Relate to the Public

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Sometimes in order to practice public relations, you actually have to relate to the public. Today our firm visited the Daybreak Day Center, a place that provides food, shelter, clothing and showers for mentally ill homeless women.  We made lunch as a team for more than 20 women, had conversations with staff and volunteers, and shared a meal with some of the most courageous people we’ve ever met.
 
 

In Defense of ‘Flaks’

Mark Cuban

Mark Cuban (Photo credit: wikipedia.com)

Here’s what it said: “Never hire a PR firm.” You can certainly understand my bemusement when reading these words.Entrepreneur Magazine recently published “Mark Cuban’s 12 Rules for Startups.”  Many of the rules provide a common sense approach to starting a new business.  But the eleventh rule made me woozy.
 
Cuban qualified this rule by saying that PR folks are calling and emailing reporters and editors when, in fact, the founders of companies should be calling and emailing the same reporters and editors “who will welcome hearing from (them) instead of some PR flak.”  Gosh, that’s harsh.  I mean, calling PR folks “flaks” is the equivalent of calling a fresh piece of rye bread a “crouton.”
 
Indeed, Cuban is talking about startups and not established companies, and hiring a PR firm isn’t always a top priority when eating and keeping the lights on are hard enough.  But if you cannot afford to hire a PR firm, you should probably ask a flak friend for some pro bono advice before banishing their firms altogether.
 
Here are my top six reasons why:
 

  1. First impressions matter.  If you send a lackluster pitch or sloppily written email to any self-respecting reporter or editor, it’s going to be tough getting their attention.
     

  2. It takes a lot of time and energy to cultivate media sources, so determine whether you have extra time to contact editors and reporters with punchy and seductive things to say.
     

  3. Crafting your own messaging (basically how a company describes itself to the public) is about as simple as staring at yourself in the mirror and describing what you see.
     

  4. It’s not easy communicating a calm and cohesive message to employees, investors, customers and others who rely on your services when you find yourself in the midst of a crisis.  That’s when PR pros really come in handy.
     

  5. The number of professional reporters and editors is shrinking due to consolidation in the media industry.  That means startups and established companies alike are responsible for generating their own buzz, and at the very least, communicating with important constituencies.   That’s what PR firms do.
     

  6. And finally, always question someone who criticizes the value of a PR firm when they themselves are billionaires, not to mention shameless self-promoters.  From the Washington Post:  “He (Cuban) is on television or the radio marveling at his charmed existence … ‘When I die, I want to come back as me,’ he likes to say…”  Unfortunately, we’re not all Mark Cuban.

 

Evan Pondel, epondel@pondel.com
 
 

The Real Deal on Public Relations

New York Times advertising columnist Stuart Elliott may finally have given the public
relations industry some needed street cred. His November 20th bylined article, “Redefining Public Relations in the Age of Social Media,” discussed why the Public Relations Society of America has embarked on its own campaign to change the definition of “public relations.”
 
This blogger over the years has had several conversations with Stuart about the importance of public relations (PR) long before this recent column, prompting the need for more coverage on the industry since it has become more integral to the marketing efforts of brands and organizations.
 
The existing definition, “public relations helps an organization and its publics adapt mutually to each other,” has been around for nearly 30 years.  You’d be surprised at a few of the suggested changes being floated around, some worse than others.
 
Quite frankly, nothing has changed.  Public relations still helps organizations “talk” to their constituencies.  The only real change is the way these organizations communicate with key audiences since the rise of the Internet.  Social media is just a new vehicle or another medium, whether it’s a brand interacting with consumers, a business-to-business organization talking with customers or even a publicly traded company communicating with investors.
 
All this chatter about a definition change ironically is good publicity for public relations, which has gotten a bad rap now and then.  The word “spin” has a negative connation and often is incorrectly used to help explain PR, which is only a small component of the broader discipline, although there may be no denying some truth to the negative sentiment.
 
Explaining public relations to those that don’t really understand it always has been a challenge, whether educating a family member or even a new business prospect. It’s very complicated to say the least and probably more art than science, not to mention nerve-racking. Coincidentally, public relations continually ranks high in surveys about the most stressful careers.
 
One crude yet effective way to explain public relations is to compare it to advertising.  Advertising is an organization talking about itself and public relations is someone else talking about that organization.  A client once said that people will remember an article in print or online but very rarely recall the ad next to it.
 
Selling PR to prospective clients may be a little easier as more people engage in the discussion about a definition change. The reality however is that people are talking about PR and for the public relations industry that’s a job well done.

 

George Medici, gmedici@pondel.com